Yellow Ribbon Project

Otto Warmbier, Student Returned by North Korea in Coma, Dies

American student Otto Warmbier speaks on Feb. 29, 2016, in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon)

A University of Virginia student held captive by North Korea and returned to the United States just days ago in an unresponsive state has died, his family said today.

Otto Warmbier, 22, who visited the communist regime as part of a tour group, was seized by North Korean officials on Jan. 2, 2016, before his flight was supposed to take off from Pyongyang. He was paraded before cameras the next month for a tearful “confession,” admitting he took down a banner that was hanging in the hall of his hotel. “I made the worst mistake of my life,” he said.

North Korea claimed the student took the poster as a “hostile act” to disturb DPRK unity at the behest of the CIA, a college group and a church in his home state of Ohio. He was sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years of hard labor and reportedly fell into a coma shortly after his sentence began.

“It is our sad duty to report that our son, Otto Warmbier, has completed his journey home,” the student’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, said in a statement. “Surrounded by his loving family, Otto died today at 2:20 p.m.”

“It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost — future time that won’t be spend with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds. But we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person.”

The family thanked University of Cincinnati Medical Center personnel “who did everything they could for Otto,” but “unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.”

When he was returned to the U.S., the parents added, he was unable to speak, see or respond to verbal commands. “He looked very uncomfortable — almost anguished,” they said. “Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day the countenance of his face changed — he was at peace. He was home and we believe he could sense that.”

“We thank everyone around the world who has kept him and our family in their thoughts and prayers. We are at peace and at home too.”

At a Thursday press conference, Warmbier’s doctors said he had suffered “extensive loss of brain tissue in all regions of the brain” consistent with oxygen deprivation seen in cardiac arrest, and was in “a state of unresponsive wakefulness.” Doctors had not detected signs of physical abuse such as broken bones.

North Korea claims Warmbier wound up in a coma after suffering from botulism and taking a sleeping pill.

The physicians caring for the UVA student would not offer a prognosis at the request of the Warmbier family.

President Trump issued a statement offering condolences on Warmbier’s “untimely passing,” as “there is nothing more tragic for a parent than to lose a child in the prime of life.”

“Otto’s fate deepens my administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency,” Trump said. “The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”

Before the news of Warmbier’s death broke, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton told reporters on a teleconference today that she was “very happy” Otto was returned to his family.

“We’re certainly aware that there are three other American citizens still being held by the North Korean regime, and we very much hope that they can come home soon,” she said. “Beyond that, our other concerns about the DPRK are well known… I think you know, for North Korea, we are, as the secretary has said many times, trying to create a global echo chamber where all counties come together behind the U.N. Security Council resolutions that’ve been developed to address North Korea’s illicit weapons programs. And we are trying to get all countries to take actions to increase the pressure on North Korea through sanctions implementation and other measures.”

The State Department has not yet commented on Warmbier’s death. Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown (D) and Rob Portman (R) released statements praising the family’s strength.

The State Department said Dennis Rodman, who flew to Pyongyang last week to meet with his friend Kim Jong-un, did not have anything to do with Warmbier’s release. Rodman told reporters that helping Americans detained by North Korea is “not my purpose right now.” On Thursday, Rodman, a former Celebrity Apprentice contestant, presented a copy of Donald Trump’s 1987 book The Art of the Deal to Kim.